Many cars promise to have two completely different driving dynamics based on the push of a button. Going from relaxed cruiser to hard-core sports car by depressing your index finger. The Mercedes-Benz SL550 is not one of those cars. It might have Comfort and Sport modes, but these change the car’s character about as much as Russia changes presidents. And what is the SL’s character? Keep reading to find out.
I was given the keys to the 2013 SL550 and pointed up a canyon road. That’s the good news. The bad news is I had a Merc rep in the passenger seat (who had a tendency to get car sick from my spirited driving) and I only get the car on this canyon road for about 30 minutes. So this is far from a definitive review, but I CAN give you general impressions and insights. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Rocketing up this Colorado canyon road and diving in and out of traffic, it is clear that the SL does not like to be hurried. It’s a crushingly capable car with unbelievable depths of technology and luxury, but it is stubborn. If you want a car to take on these kinds roads, look elsewhere. Driven at 9/10ths, the car wallows around corners and hesitates to get back on the power. As you push the SL into extreme angles, it pushes back a bit harder and slows your progress outright. You can feel and hear the power this car has to offer (429 hp with 516lb-ft of torque), and the wide track hints at what should be possible, but it never gels together into anything near a cohesive ride.
Back off from the power, though, and the world starts to make sense again. Fancy a comfortable cruiser instead of a canyon-bombing sports car? This could be the ride for you. Once you slow down by 20mph and start smoothly cruising , the car is much happier. On the canyon roads, the SL began to carve competently albeit less excitingly. The car does have those tantalizing buttons for Sport and Comfort mode, but on these kinds of roads the difference is negligible. These are basically just suspension firmness settings, and while Sport is noticeably firmer it doesn’t match the car’s relaxed character well.
It is clear that Mercedes knows exactly who their customer is for the SL550. After being on the market for decades the SL has collected a certain kind of buyer (insert dentist joke here), and Mercedes is not about to disappoint them by making the car any different than what they’ve come to expect. This is a classic GT car – long hood, big speeds, and comfortable seats. This car would feel infinitely capable on an open highway bombing between cities and states.
In true Gran Turismo tradition, the SL’s cabin is a place of leather and opulence. Every surface welcomes your visual attention and your touch. Every switch, button, or dial responds with positive feedback and are laid out in ergonomic positions. It is a lovely place to inhabit, and I could have spent hours in those Lay-Z-Boy chairs with their ingenious Air Scarf system – picture air vents installed in the base of seat’s headrest that blow warming or cooling air across the base of your neck. It works so well in such a discreet way, a truly novel engineering solution.
Being a modern Mercedes, the car is a little fiddly, has too many electronic nannies, and is a heavy bugger but is nonetheless deeply capable at what it was designed to do. The reason you always see doctors and starlets in non-AMG SLs is because that was who this car was designed to appeal to. The 550 is clearly not an enthusiast’s car, but to dominate a busy highway and get you in comfort from widely separated A and B, there are few other cars on the road that perform like this one. Those Comfort and Sport buttons might not split the car into two different animals, but the species of the SL is pretty damn good on its own.
- Adam Kaslikowski